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Warren Buffett Protege to Leave Berkshire, Start Own Firm

Warren Buffett Protege to Leave Berkshire, Start Own Firm

Tracy Britt Cool says she wants to work with companies ‘too small for Berkshire’

Tracy Britt Cool at the Pampered Chef national conference in Chicago in 2019.PHOTO: EDDIE KRANJAC/PAMPERED CHEF

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By Nicole Friedman
Updated Sept. 18, 2019 6:23 pm ET
Tracy Britt Cool, one of Warren Buffett’s key lieutenants in recent years, is leaving Berkshire Hathaway Inc. to create a mini Berkshire of her own.

Ms. Britt Cool joined Berkshire in 2009 at age 25 as Mr. Buffett’s financial assistant, a job he created for her. In 2014, she became chief executive of Pampered Chef, a cookware company owned by Berkshire.

Now 35, Ms. Britt Cool wants to build an investment vehicle that acquires companies for the long term, like Berkshire does.

“I want to build a long-term platform and a long-term vehicle to acquire and build businesses,” Ms. Britt Cool said in an interview. “There are companies that I think there’s a lot of value in helping them get to the next level, but they’re too small for Berkshire.”

Ms. Britt Cool, who is based in Chicago, plans to leave Pampered Chef at the end of March. She will also resign from the board of Kraft Heinz Co. in the first quarter of 2020, she said. Ms. Britt Cool will remain on Blue Apron Holdings Inc. ’s board.

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In her decade at Berkshire, Ms. Britt Cool specialized in helping Berkshire companies that were struggling. At various points, she served as chairman of Benjamin Moore & Co., Larson-Juhl, Johns Manville and Oriental Trading Co., meaning that those companies’ CEOs reported directly to her. She took over Pampered Chef when its sales and earnings were falling.

“She was the fireman,” Mr. Buffett said in an interview. “Anything I’ve assigned her she’s done a first-class job on.”

In the second quarter of 2019, Pampered Chef’s sales rose 19% and its pretax earnings rose 52% from the prior year, Mr. Buffett said.

Ms. Britt Cool has served on the Kraft Heinz board since 2015 and previously sat on the board of H.J. Heinz Co. Berkshire owns 27% of Kraft Heinz. The company’s shares have dropped 34% this year due to weak sales, asset write-downs and accounting errors.

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Andrew Treanor, Pampered Chef’s chief operating officer, will replace Ms. Britt Cool as CEO, she said.

Ms. Britt Cool grew up in Kansas and attended Harvard Business School. She first met Mr. Buffett on a trip to Omaha, Neb., where Berkshire is based, with a student group that she co-founded for women investors.

She worked for him for a summer in 2009, but the Berkshire headquarters didn’t have an opening. Later that year, Mr. Buffett hired Ms. Britt Cool full-time as his financial assistant, initially to oversee Berkshire’s involvement in Berkadia, a joint venture between Berkshire and Jefferies Financial Group Inc.

As financial assistant, “I worked directly with Warren on anything that crossed his desk,” Ms. Britt Cool said. “I’ve really enjoyed learning about value investing and how to be an entrepreneurial-minded operator at the same time.”

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Mr. Buffett said he understood Ms. Britt Cool’s decision because he also left a job he loved, at his mentor Benjamin Graham’s investment firm, to work for himself in 1956. He added that he doesn’t intend for Berkshire to invest in Ms. Britt Cool’s new venture.

Ms. Britt Cool is one of the highest-profile women at Berkshire, which has three women on its board of directors and seven women CEOs at its operating companies. Some Berkshire watchers have speculated that she could take a future top leadership role at the company.

Ms. Britt Cool has played a major role at Berkshire in convening the company’s dozens of CEOs to network and learn from each other. Ms. Britt Cool organized the first Berkshire CEO gathering in 2013, and they have been held annually in Omaha since. Berkshire CEOs say the gatherings are a highlight and have sparked new working relationships.

Ms. Britt Cool said she plans to apply the same strategies she used at Berkshire businesses to help small companies grow. She declined to comment on the structure of her venture or how she plans to fund it.

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Mr. Buffett has famously struggled in recent years to find affordable companies to buy for Berkshire, as a decadelong bull market has pushed up company valuations. Due to Berkshire’s size, Mr. Buffett is looking to deploy tens of billions of dollars at a time.

“The toughest part is finding things to buy,” Mr. Buffett said. But as Ms. Britt Cool will be targeting much smaller companies, he added, “she’s got an easier job than I’ve got.”

Write to Nicole Friedman at nicole.friedman@wsj.com

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